Women talk to each other: Notes from the Tsunami exchange


Tamilnadu, India January 17 to 20th 2005.



Laxmi, Chhaya and Shanta and Lakshmi are survivors and leaders of savings and credit groups  and experienced in reconstruction work  after Latur and Gujarat earthquakes. Their insights are in what follows.


They felt the tsunami destruction is different from an earthquake. The effect will be more long lasting in people’s minds. People have to face the sea, which destroyed lives and yet, is life giving - provides their daily food and livelihood. 


However they found women in these fishing communities more vocal and courageous.

The reason women are courageous is they are involved in fish trading and go the market therefore they are exposed to outsiders. They already have the financial power in their hand as they take loans to support families in fishing business. This indirectly gives them decision-making power. They are part of groups, though government agencies forms most groups to get bank loans, so women are not active on the social front. They are eager to learn and hungry for information.  They are concerned about their fellow women who have nothing to survive.


Building solidarity among women is the first step. In all the meetings with the women’s groups message was “ you should not allow yourself to treated as a victim”. Women’s groups should take collective issues/action instead of taking up individual problems first. Our experience shows that if you work collectively you can play an important role to rebuild your, family life and community. Take collective action and decisions, record them and negotiate with the local government. 


Prior existence of women’s groups can be a force, which should be activated.  Groups can do many things in rehabilitation work. They can  list beneficiaries and focus on needs of  widows, destitute and aged people.  They should invite the local leaders in these meetings. Initially they may show disapproval but if they approached as a group eventually. 


Health Services: In Madatipattanam where a health team has camped since tsunami. The staff told us mainly men and children come for the fractures and cough cold and fever but not the women. In the same village, women and the girls approached us - they feel embarrassed to go the health camp. There is no privacy for check ups and all doctors are usually male. The facilities at these centers are inadequate.  Records of the patients are kept on paper but for follow up no case records are given to the patients.

Temporary Shelters: In Pudupethai the temporary shelters some villages this toilets have been constructed for 10 unit one toilet but people said due to lack of water and availability they do not want to go there.  In Madatikuppam women expressed the need of bathroom and toilets, they said they couldn’t take bath because there arrangements near their home have been destroyed.  In the temporary shelters no arrangements for bathrooms.


Psychosocial interventions: In Pudukuppam these villages have totally destroyed. We met the women who are guilty and devastated, as they have lost their children. Papati who has lost her two children including her nine-year-old daughter, she feels very lonely. Their eyes are tearless. They said that they couldn’t function. They feel totally helpless. She said, the government has given money but like many others, does not feel like doing anything.

In Vanagiri village we met the women who said, many people come everyday to the sea shore and curse the sea for taking away lives and their life savings.  In Padatikuppam , we found that old age people were died after Tsunami just because of the shock and not knowing what the future holds..

Savings and Credit Groups: All villages have women’s groups with each 20 women members doing savings and giving loans to members. In some villages the women are more relaxed and they have confident to rebuild their live as they united, in others women feel their role is limited to giving loans and thus do not see how they can contribute in rebuilding work.

Information Awareness on shelter: People have no idea about the government policy and entitlement for housing. Rumors are   they are going to get 250 sq ft house. This will not be enough to house joint families. Much less store there will no place to store all the fishing nets and baskets.. They said they want their kitchen outside their home.


Communication networks --Our experience shows that efficient, dependable communications and information dissemination strengthen the ability of communities to access the entitlements.  Women’s groups can play an effective role in gathering, analyzing and disseminating information on rehabilitation policies for the Tsunami affected communities. 

Temporary shelters:  Everywhere we found discontent about the temporary shelters. These are built from asbestos sheets and in row, offering little privacy or safety. Already people are living outside defeating the purpose they were built for. They dread the summer months in these shelters. People have been not consulted or allowed to participate in putting up these shelters.. In Wanagiri the communities were told not to visit the construction site. 

Women were responsive when we spoke of the mason training and the role of women as construction supervisors. Groups have to equip themselves for the construction phase so they can monitor the construction. Women can supervise safety when their hoes are being constructed. Since people are available, they do not have means to ensure daily income. The message from the govt. was confusing –orders -not go into the sea which have stopped their earnings. But instead of providing local people employment in construction of shelters the government have hired contractors who bring labor from outside for construction.  The people seemed to be enthusiastic about taking part in construction but they are not confident as they lack skills and whether they will be allowed to participate in construction phase. 

The design of houses is traditional. The better off families have cement houses, tiled floors and poor live in mud and thatched roof houses. All rich and poor have kitchen outside and roofs, which are thatched. The state government after a fire in recent times ahs banned use of thatched roofs in all construction after tsunami. This makes it very difficult for people esp. poor who are used to living in these traditional houses.   

Government Policies: People have not aware about govt policies even in own villages such as People still not aware that who is going to get a temporary shelter. These decisions are with few traditional leaders. 

Childcare: The childcare system has been disturbed. We saw children playing in the sands and water logged areas. The personal hygiene was totally neglected. We noticed rise in skin infections, diarrhea and chicken pox in children. Women groups along with the help of youth can play a important role in sending children back to the schools or organizing them into small camps. 

Community Centers: In order to organize women collectively, women need a place to meet. In many villages we met them at the temple. But we notice that they cannot talk openly about their personal health or other problems. When we asked about them where they meet for their group meetings? Do they have place? They said, no.

In Chinnagudi village women’s groups have constructed community center and contributed to build a platform to sell the fish. The center was not open; the Gram panchayat has taken charge of it and locked it. 

In Madhatikuppam village, women angrily said, the community center was used to run a child acre centre by govt. When they ask, the local authority denied the place for meeting. So they even approached a private landowner who was supposed to donate them land for women’s centre, but he died in Tsunami tragedy.

In the Wanagiri village has 39 groups, they find it very difficult to meet every month for meeting due to the unavailability of place. In the next half hour the groups met and finalized their resolve on paper to approach the Gram Panchayat for land for the center. They plan to get approval in next 10 days.
Fear of 26th January 2005: In every village, after the discussion every one said that now they are worried about 26th January. (This was the Black day of the Gujarat earthquake)  Most of the people do not plan to come back or plan to go to their relative’s living inland. There is little effort by government to educate the people on these rumors. This occasion could be effectively used to demonstrate safety and precaution measures.


Five women survivors- leaders with previous experience of dealing with disasters Latur (1993) and Gujarat (2001) reached on January 17th barely three weeks after the tsunami hit to express their solidarity with women like themselves. The disaster watch and exchange was facilitated by a multidisciplinary team from Swayam Shikshan Prayog with CCD –Covenant Centre for Development a development organization working directly with affected communities on livelihoods and social rehabilitation.


Disaster Watch Network is globally supported by Huairou Commission and GROOTS International.

From January 17th to 20th 2005, the 10-member team visited 13 villages in the worst affected areas in Nagapattinam and Cuddalore districts on the Tamilnadu coast.  Eager to listen and share, women gathered spontaneously wherever we went. The team conducted group meetings with the affected peoples–focus on widows, old people, poor, and spoke to youth and women’s self groups, children, men and fisherman cooperatives members.  Purpose of rapid assessment was



For the detailed assessment report write to:

Smita [email protected] or Chandran [email protected]